While predictions of the imminent death of religion in an increasingly “secular” world often sound quaint, if not downright out of touch, profound religious experience can still seem like the purview of a fringe minority. After all, being “born again,” or achieving “mokṣa” (liberation) are not exactly everyday experiences, even for those who say they have had them. Nevertheless, a new survey by the Pew Form on Religion and Public Life finds that nearly half of all Americans have had what they consider a “religious or mystical experience,” over twice as many as in 1962.
When asked in a Gallup poll in 1962 only 22% of Americans reported that they ever had religious or mystical experiences. When polled again in 1976 that number had jumped to 31% and it remained relatively unchanged through 1994 when Newsweek reported 33%. In just over a decade however by 2006 Ipsos found that 47% have had religious or mystical experiences. In the most recent poll conducted by the Pew Forum, the level was 49%.
While the longitudinal trend is startling the Pew Forum data is, perhaps, most interesting for what it says about religious experience and demographics. For example, a wide range of responses was found among American Christians. “Strong majorities of white evangelicals (70%) and black Protestants (71%) say they have had religious or mystical experiences, compared with four-in-ten mainline Protestants (40%). Catholics resemble mainline Protestants, with 37% having had a religious or mystical experience.”
While “mystical or religious experiences are most common among people who regularly attend religious services,” three-in-ten among the religiously unaffiliated also report having “religious experiences” – a level well above that of the total population in 1962 and comparable to that of 1976.
Age appears to be a significant factor for religious experience as well. “More than half (55%) of baby boomers (age 50-64) identify with such experiences, compared with fewer young adults and seniors (43% each).”
Perhaps the most important point for the scientific study of religion remains implicit in this study's findings. While religious experiences are relatively common, they are not universal. In fact, far fewer people report having them (49%) than report belonging to a religious or spiritual tradition (72%). So while religious experiences, particularly of the more memorable, life altering kind, are certainly appropriate objects of study they should not be the only ones. “Religion,” it seems, involves far more than (supposedly) unique experiences.
For the original Pew Forum report, see here.